Comment // E4’s ‘The Work Experience’ a harsh reminder of the challenges facing young jobseekers

Comical exploitation of unsuspecting young interns exposes the dark side of interning in the creative sector and how far young people will humiliate and expose themselves to get ahead.

Recently, Channel 4 has launched a new series. With its mix of mock documentary, comedy and drama, “The Work Experience” features a team of eccentrics working for a fashion PR agency. Each week, two unsuspecting, wide-eyed hopefuls looking for their big break, join the team under the pretence of work experience. Thus ensue some rather ridiculous events that spiral completely out of control. The whole thing parodies the fashion industry and mocks the unsuspecting willingness of interns to do whatever they are told in order to impress their superiors.

Admittedly, it is very well acted and is a comical portrait of the cut-throat nature of an image-obsessed industry. However, aside from the exuberant acting and ludicrous situations – where one intern found herself helping to free several Chinese women from a makeshift sweat shop run by one of the owners of the PR company – I couldn’t help wondering why so many of these interns failed to question the lengths they were pushed to. Frequently forced to expose and undermine themselves, exchanging their talents for dumb-witted submission, they took part in outrageous tasks not even related to the fashion sector. ‘The Work Experience’  will ring hollow with young jobseekers of today.

We have all been there. Turning up to intern with high expectations of what we could achieve and possessing doleful hopes impressing the team so much that you’re offered a job and fast tracked to the top of the career ladder. One stint at a local newspaper I had high hopes of uncovering the biggest news story of the year, instead I wrote photo captions for a week and attended meetings at the local council. But I did it without complaint. All in the name of cutting our teeth right?

With the graduate job market becoming more competitive than ever, and the recession showing no signs of abating soon, this sadly is no longer an uncommon experience for students and graduates looking to build a career. On finding out the experience was fake, participant in the programme Felicity, 19, said “At no point during the entire experience was anything a bit weird, because I just had this thought in my mind that this is what the fashion industry is”. Nowadays, young people are so aware of the financial crisis that awaits them upon graduation that a bit of humiliation during a work placement is the price to pay for a chance at a job.

Does this make it right? Over the last few years there have been several debates into the legality of unpaid, long term work placements, which is what many graduates find themselves on at the end of their degrees. Some argue that it is unlawful to employ full time workers without paying them the legal minimum wage of £6.19 for over 21 year olds. However, it is still currently legal to take on interns who work for free if it is for a period of less than a year. In recent years, the government has rolled out a nationwide work experience programme aimed at getting people off benefits and back into work – these people are asked to work for free in the hope that they may be able to procure a permanent position at the end. Nowadays, businesses just aren’t interested in training people. Instead, they prefer to have candidates already experienced, ready-and-waiting to fit straight into their corporation. Even small and medium businesses now take this approach – only further fostering this culture of free labour – and the market for it is bigger than ever.  In the most popular sectors, media, advertising and PR, there are teeming masses of people willing to work for free and do whatever it takes to work their way up. This, as my career adviser says, “is just the way things are.”

In August Cait Riley tried to sue the government for “slave labour” when she was “forced” to work unpaid at Pound Land as part of a back to work scheme. Her case was rejected by the high court because the scheme was not compulsory,  she had the choice to turn down the placement, just as we have the choice not to take unpaid work experience. Unfortunately, unpaid labour is an all too accepted reality in the U.K and the government has embraced it as the way forward for people struggling to find jobs during the recession.  Of course the economic aspect of free labour doesn’t hurt and is all too exploitable in jobseekers. Degrees do not give you all the necessary skills you need to work in the real world. They are desirable but you cannot beat cold hard experience. The days of graduating university and entering a highly paid job are long and gone.

As a final year student my graduation is looming ahead of me and I can only fear the worst. Perhaps my choice to pursue journalism – one of the most competitive sectors – only makes this scenario more likely. This is a fact I have to accept. I can only hope to get as much experience as I can now, and hope that it stands me in good stead for the future.  With so much competition out there, I will have to join those looking for their big break in journalism and hope that my talent makes me stand out.

Image: Joanna Keen. Subject to Creative Commons license

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